Here's why we needed yet another royal commission

Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester announcing the royal commission into veteran suicide. Picture: Getty Images
Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester announcing the royal commission into veteran suicide. Picture: Getty Images

Yet another revelation of systemic failure. Yet another royal commission.

Suiciding military veterans join Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders dying in jails, those in aged care, the disabled, those exploited by the financial system, and those sexually abused, in an extraordinarily long list which demonstrates that ordinary democratic government has failed its citizens. The total number of neglected victims is staggering. More soldiers die by suicide than are killed in action.

A royal commission removes an issue from ordinary politics (or at least it signifies that intent for public consumption). The Prime Minister does not just announce the course of action himself, but recommends it to the Governor-General. This signals that community discernment and eventual government policy have been elevated to a higher level. Royal commissions have special authority, status and powers of investigation. They are usually well resourced and headed by persons of significant repute and profile, often judges.

While a royal commisson can benefit governments by diverting public attention, they often are dragged into having one because it is an indication of failure. Many recent royal commissions have eventuated long after public opinion has been convinced of the need. Once again, this government has been dragged unwillingly into calling a royal commission, as was the case with the banking and financial services inquiry.

The backdrop to many a royal commission is years of persistent advocacy by victims and, where victims have died, as in this case, by their families and friends. Advocates have experienced years of grinding engagement with the bureaucratic, political and judicial systems fighting for justice. When an announcement of a royal commission is eventually made, it is these individuals and groups who are the real heroes. They should be saluted.

There is nothing more dispiriting than fighting against "the system". The development of advocacy groups helps individuals and families in their fight, but personal grief and sacrifice is still an essential ingredient in pressuring governments to act. Political advocacy is always a hard gig.

Few royal commissions are judged in hindsight not to have been worthwhile. Most are spectacular successes. At their best they shine a spotlight on a social catastrophe. This means digging behind the scenes, forcing hidden public and private documents to be revealed, and accumulating the statistics which reveal the big picture.

Increasingly royal commissions are a platform for people to tell their personal and family stories. Such an opportunity to be heard and believed in a public forum is often a major step forward in itself. But stories serve a greater purpose, because they cut through in a way that statistics, however stark, cannot. Stories can also demand public apologies from authorities.

Royal commissions are also an opportunity for experts to interpret the statistics and to discuss how problems might be addressed. Identifying problems can often be easier than developing solutions. This is because systemic failure is often linked to human and social failure that is not easily redressed.

Even a successful royal commission is usually only a first step. Then, too often, it is back into business-as-usual politics. Royal commissions make recommendations for action, but they cannot take action themselves. For that, they must rely on parliaments and governments. The political system reclaims power over outcomes. Advocates cannot rest, therefore, until reforms are finally implemented. This can take a decades - if at all.

The history of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 30 years ago is a stark reminder of the limitations of royal commissions. Their advice still must meet with government approval. Argument continues over the apparent failure of many governments, state and federal, to meaningfully implement its recommendations. The black deaths in custody continue unabated.

The long-term nature of royal commissions limits successful implementation. The bipartisan support of successive governments is necessary because royal commissions often report after the next election, and sometimes after a change of government or to a new prime minister.


Recommendations also must take their place alongside many other issues, including those arising from other royal commissions. They compete for financial resources in federal budgets and struggle to change established culture in government departments and the private sector.

This is not just any royal commission. That it has come to this is not just another national disgrace, but remarkable. The character of the subject matter, the lives and deaths of those who have served their country in war, is central to Australian identity.

We are just emerging from a bruising 20-year military commitment in Afghanistan, and previous military commitments dot our history. For many people wars define our history as a nation more than any civil event.

Anzac Day is revered as a national day, closer to the hearts of many Australians than Australia Day, Easter or Christmas Day. The Australian War Memorial is a hallowed institution, treated by many governments as first among our national institutions in Canberra. Former military personnel regularly occupy the highest offices in the land, including three of the most recent governors-general.

How has it come to this, then? Surely the returned services have clout, exemplified by the privileged position of the Returned and Services League. Yet advocates for veterans testify to a long-term dysfunctional relationship between the senior department, Defence, and the more junior department, Veterans' Affairs.

Clearly our national values and our lofty words regarding the place of the military in our society have not been translated into adequate care for our veterans. Once having served the nation, the casualties of war among service men and women appear to be forgotten.

  • John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.
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